5 Lessons Learned from Women General Counsels

On May 18th, I attended the Committee on Women in the Legal Profession of the New York City Bar Association's fourth annual General Counsel Panel, which discussed how women general counsels manage crises and their role in protecting their companies from domestic and international financial, reputational and other risks.

Photo credit: Kathryn Inman

From left: Lucy Fato, Executive Vice President & General Counsel, McGraw Hill Financial; Betty Whelchel, General Counsel for North America, BNP Paribas; Aisha Christian, General Counsel, Rent the Runway; Renee Soto, Managing Director, Sard Verbinnen & Co.; Tamara Linde, Executive Vice President and General Counsel, Public Service Enterprise Group Incorporated. Learn about the speakers here.

Here are my 5 takeaways from the event:

1) Every crisis is different

General counsels manage a wide range of activities and therefore, crises.  These can be anything from security breaches to tweets gone bad to an executive’s indiscretions.  The consensus on the panel is, although it’s important to have a plan, you can’t plan for everything.  However, if a crisis does occur, you need to know who you’ll call. Also, you should know your company’s vulnerabilities and anticipate which crisis situations may occur.  Knowing potential liabilities helps when planning.

2) It’s important to have the right team of people

In a crisis, it’s not only important to know who the key players are (board members, PR team, etc.) but to have a cohesive team.  As Lucy Fato of McGraw Hill Financial mentioned, know how you will notify the board and who you need to contact.  Develop your relationships in advance of the crisis – know who the communications and PR team is and keep the dialogue open.  A weekly update sent to different teams from the legal team and vice versa, although simple, goes a long way in developing relationships but also having the background knowledge of a crisis. 

3) Be factual, consistent, & responsive         

“Managing a crisis in real time is often stressful and chaotic.  That’s why it’s so important to be deliberate, calm and focused on the big picture,” says moderator, Renée Soto of Sard Verbinnen & Company. Have a clear and consistent message.  Avoid the temptation to speculate about the problem. Simply stating “no comment” whenever press asks a question, is not helpful. As Tammy Linde of Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG) mentioned, “know the audience” – give them confidence not just a legal answer.

4) Manage the crisis – nothing will “fix” the crisis

Aisha Christian of Rent the Runway says “don’t ever run” from the problem. People’s first instinct is to “go into a bunker” but as Betty Whelchel of BNP Baribas explained, you may be judged more harshly for what you don’t do.

Social media has changed how crises are managed – it’s critical to success but also to crisis management. Many companies have social media policies and procedures for employees that educate the employee on press alerts and varying social media sites.

5) The management of a crisis may have more impact on an organization than the crisis itself.

The crisis is never really over.  After the crisis is resolved, everyone just wants to forget, but there is always an aftermath.  In a way, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste – there’s plenty to learn from the situation that should be applied to the next crisis.

There were a lot of great tips from these amazing women GCs that can be applied to everyday life.  Their suggestions regarding communication between teams are relevant to most workplaces.

After the panel, I spoke briefly with Ms. Christian of Rent the Runway.  Her two tips for those who want to follow in her footsteps: 1) don’t run and 2) give your straightforward advice.  She says too many women lawyers preface their advice with “I’ve never done this before but…” Just give your advice! No preface is needed and you’ve already undercut your case. 

Thank you to the Committee on Women in the Legal Profession of the NYC Bar Association for having me at the event! Learn more about becoming a member of the NYC Bar Association here.

About the author: Jane Rosales is a rising 2L evening student and a paralegal at a legal services organization in NYC.  She also serves on Ms. JD's Board of Directors. 

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